MALE GAZING 'Son of Horse Thief Britt, From Star Wester, December 1943,' oil on canvas painting by George Rozen (1943).
When Maine native John Ford directed Stagecoach in 1939, he launched then-unknown John Wayne into international stardom, and created a new star for the American hero mythos. A loner, in dangerous territory, battles savage natives, saves a damsel, and wins the heart of a loose woman as they ride off into the sunset. This prototype was built in the pages of the pulp novel, cheap wood-pulp magazines filled with stories of violence, sex, and hyper-machismo, emblazoned with scandalous covers to match. This low-brow literary escapism gripped readers in the US from the Great Depression through World War II and into the early Atomic Age. “The Pulps” exhibit at Portland Public Library is a survey of this golden era of the form’s sensational cover art. Culled from the Robert Lesser Collection at the New Britain Museum of American Art, the largest assemblage of original pulp illustrations in the world, this showcase of over 20 pulp artists comes sweating, scantily clad, and guns blazing.
As photomechanical printing became more widespread and affordable into the 1930’s, pulp publishers could now cheaply produce brighter and more nuanced illustrations. The more shocking the image the better they sold, as magazines now competed for attention in a growing radio and movie culture. Sometimes these media forms could be mutually beneficial, as with The Shadow franchise that delivered both a pulp serial and radio program. George Rozen painted the most lasting image of The Shadow, a mysterious vigilante, cloaked in black and red, with a penetrating gaze that would match Orson Welles’s radio purr. More often, pulp novels benefitted from being cheap thrills in a time of economic desperation.
Titillating and crass, pulp covers were made fast to sell cheap—to collect pulp cover art would have been, in its time, to collect smut. The churn and burn production of monthly or weekly serials gave little incentive to preserve the original works. Of the tens of thousands of pulp cover art created, only close to a thousand are believed to exist today, making it difficult to amass a study of the form. Changes in style move from romantic to realistic while fleshing out characters, sensationalizing combat, and exploring science fiction. The earliest work in the show, J. Allen St. John’s Tarzan Lord of the Jungle (1928), is nearly pastoralism. Jump to Earle K. Bergey’s Doubling in Murder (1947), and the realistic face of horror on the female murder’s face is surrounded by the accusatory fingers of her ghostly victims. Each work displayed is movie-poster size, framed neatly with a copy of the printed issue. The impressive conservation of these would-be ephemera does great service to appreciating the quality of brush work and the fierceness of color use. Formally, each scene is highly kinetic, theatrically hued, and extremely lush.
'The Whisperers, 1942,' oil on canvas by Hugh Joseph Ward
Concerning the content of pulp art, the themes are rife with sociopolitical horrors considered far more problematic than exciting now in the twenty-first century. These ubiquitous white male protagonists battle swarthy races of evildoers, faceless WWII-axis enemies, and, eventually, extraterrestrials. Segregation and foreign wartime didn’t foster positive race relations, favoring an inflation of invincibility and lone-avenger dreams. Women are generally depicted as eroticized victims of rape or torture, their rescue dependent on the desire of these stony heroes. While it’s true that some women do get to take the wheel and pull the trigger, their sex appeal is required for inclusion. Don’t miss the two impressively hidden Allen Anderson pieces, though, successful departures in this exhibit for depicting the only solo heroic female protagonist and the only woman wearing pants.